The COVID-19 crisis has closed over 124,000 schools in America. Most will be closed until next fall, with many likely experiencing roving blackouts throughout the year. Since the rise of compulsory schooling in America a century ago, there has never been this level of school shutdown. Not during the Spanish Flu of 1918 or World War II, or after 9/11.

An empty modern classroom aglow from the afternoon sun peeking through its windows.

Teachers and schools are doing their best to adjust to this strange new land. Zoom classes, asynchronous learning, and Facebook lessons are all being implemented with varying degrees of success.

But what happens when school comes back in session? Are these closures merely a “long snow day,” as one educator put it? Or will this experience fundamentally change the nature of what it means to “do school”?

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Leading political scientists and sociologists have documented that most large-scale social changes happen amid and in the wake of crises. Think of the rise of the social welfare state in Europe post–World War II, or the social safety net developed during the Great Depression.

Looking at the American education system in particular, the post–Civil War era led to more widespread post-elementary schooling. Decades later, the implementation of the G.I. Bill after WWII transformed our higher education landscape by making it accessible to new classes of Americans. COVID-19 certainly counts as a large-scale crisis, hence the opportunity for transformative social change to education.

There are five ways I believe that COVID could change the future of school—for the better.

1. More social-emotional learning (SEL) for students

The pandemic has seen a surge of articles with titles like “How to help students navigate this Social-Emotional Rollercoaster” and “Leaning into SEL amid the COVID-19 crisis.”

While normal classes are disrupted by COVID, SEL is becoming the primary work for many educators. One teacher in Minnesota put it well to me in an email: “During this time, social-emotional learning work isn’t just another thing to add to an educator’s plate. This is the plate.”

There’s widespread acknowledgement that we must pay greater attention to the social-emotional needs of our students because they’re suffering. When we get back to school, teachers and students will have to process their parents’ lost jobs, their tough times with their families at home, and how this crisis affects their future when it comes to college. If school resumes and this work isn’t prioritized, students will feel like schools really don’t get it and are out of touch with their needs.

Project Wayfinder, the organization I founded and currently run, specializes in SEL with curricula focused on supporting young people cultivate a sense of purpose. Right now, we’re seeing a surge in demand for our services as schools prepare to go back to school next year in the wake of COVID. Savvy school administrators are already thinking about how to ensure their staff are ready to meet students’ emotional and psychological, post-pandemic needs.

This is on the minds of school leaders across the country, including Michael Gayles, the founding principal of IGNITE Middle School in Dallas. IGNITE is a cutting-edge school that prioritizes the SEL needs of its scholars. In a recent email, Gayles wrote, “Meaning. Belonging. Connectedness. Emotional Health. COVID has amplified our awareness of these needs for our students. The crisis will pass, but my hope is that all school leaders will make these higher priorities.”

I share Gayles’s hope that this work proves not to be a checkbox or temporary crisis management, but rather a more transformational integration of SEL into our education system.

2. Higher priority on teacher well-being

Of course, this crisis is hitting teachers hard, too. A Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence survey of 5,000 teachers amid COVID asked them to describe the three most frequent emotions they felt each day. Anxious, fearful, worried, overwhelmed, and sad were the top five. Anxiety, by far, was the most frequently mentioned emotion, according to the study.

Sadly, these findings are very similar to those from a 2017 study conducted by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence pre-COVID. That study showed teachers were struggling with nearly the same issues. The top five emotions from that study were frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed, tired, and happy. The primary sources of teacher frustration and stress were feeling unsupported by their administration regarding challenges related to meeting students’ diverse learning needs, high-stakes testing, an ever-changing curriculum, and work/life balance.

As we shelter in place, parents now must now step in to fill the role teachers once played for school-age children stuck at home. And news stories are appearing daily reporting the challenges teachers are facing in their attempts to teach remotely. With this new awareness of what it takes to teach, we’re seeing a blossoming respect for their previously underappreciated work.

  • A hypothetical heart-shaped Earth, as it would be if seen from space.

    Supporting Learning and Well-Being During the Coronavirus Crisis

    Activities, articles, videos, and other resources to address student and adult anxiety and cultivate connection

    Read It Now

American teachers work more hours per year than in any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member country. And yet they aren’t widely respected in our culture, well-paid, or given the autonomy they need to truly do their jobs well. This crisis may—I hope—prompt a cultural shift in the acknowledgment of the burden that teachers carry and the credit they’re due.

3. More of a coaching and mentoring role for teachers

Nearly all the teachers I know in the K–12 and college spaces agree on one thing: More than ever, their jobs are about human connection. Thanks to the pandemic, we’re seeing a rise in one-on-one communication between teachers and students by text, Facebook Messenger, or Zoom. We’re seeing more of this in affluent schools than in poor schools, but it points to the importance of one-on-one relationships, which are often hard if not impossible to foster within the constraints of our normal blocked school scheduling.

I’ve argued for years that educators need to be trained more like mentors and coaches and less like knowledge dispensers and disciplinarians. How are these two roles different?

For one thing, mentors share more of themselves and who they are, and understand their role as providing support and encouragement, rather than just keeping students disciplined or moving along in the curriculum. Many teachers I know are sharing more with their students about how they’re personally dealing with COVID, which has led to a stronger sense of connection and mutual understanding.

The mentoring relationship starts with human connection—it’s a bidirectional relationship. This differs from the classic teacher-student relationship, which relies on a one-directional flow, teacher to student. Most thoughtful teachers I know enter the profession largely for the relationships with students, but the truth is that the structure of school (particularly high school) squeezes the opportunities for connection out, or relegates them to extracurricular activities.

Over the years, creative school models, like Big Picture Learning, have popped up that intentionally foster mentoring relationships. Students work closely over multiple years with one “advisor” who works with each student and their family to craft individual learning plans. Students also engage in internships at community organizations and businesses where they develop relationships with mentors as they explore career possibilities. Multiple studies have suggested that this approach leads to increased student engagement and stronger interpersonal and intrapersonal skills such as collaboration, self-efficacy, and academic engagement.

Why would this happen in the wake of this crisis? Because teachers and students realize the value of the one-on-one relationships. Because teachers are given more autonomy and flexibility that allows for the flourishing of these relationships intentionally as opposed to them being squeezed out of the school day. Because this crisis challenges the content-first model of industrial education and (coming back from this) parents, teachers, students, and administrators put a higher value on teacher-student relationships.

4. More autonomy for schools and teachers, fewer top-down demands

In light of pandemic stay-at-home orders, the fed and many states have dropped year-end testing requirements. Many of these tests were implemented as well-intentioned albeit poorly designed public policy measures to force accountability for schools and close the equity gap for students of color.

However, more than 15 years since the inception of No Child Left Behind, there’s almost no evidence that these tests accomplish either of these two objectives. Nor is there evidence that these types of tests actually help students learn the material.

Yet schools spend a significant amount of their school year prepping for these tests, most school leaders loathe them, and teachers cite them as a major reason for leaving the profession. So, what if we seize this moment to scrap most of these tests and find other ways of measuring proficiency, and free up school time for actual learning? I could see a world where states, districts, and the fed put a multi-year pause on these tests, which would allow political will to squash these tests to build and empower schools and districts to spend their time more productively.

“COVID is presenting a unique opportunity in education. For the first time in 150 years, we get to blow up the industrial model of education. ”
―Katie Barr, principal of Maria Carillo High School

We could take our cues from Finland—ranked the most efficient and productive high school system in the world. Finland only tests its students once in their academic careers, allows teachers more autonomy, and gives students less homework but has better reading and math test scores than the United States.

5. More student choice and autonomy

Now that schools are no longer in session from 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., accountability is fundamentally different. No one can force students to sit in their chair and track their tardiness in the same way. Students have gained more autonomy and choice.

One could argue this shift is a bad thing—“If we can’t see what students are doing, how do we know they’re learning?” Maybe this moment offers an opportunity to rethink accountability and measurement as it relates to student learning. One well-cited study showed that students take in knowledge best when they’re intrinsically motivated to learn something.

Because of COVID, demand has increased for programs like Outschool, where students opt in to an online teaching class with a teacher in small class settings. This surge is of course due in large part to the stay-at-home order and the need for remote learning, but Outschool has two critical components: The teachers must want to teach the content and the students must opt-in to the program. In other words, there’s more intrinsic motivation on both sides for these classes, which leads to better results.

In the COVID era, many teachers I know have gained more latitude in how they teach. “During this time, teachers have the opportunity to explore online teaching platforms, rethink the purpose of learning, and design activities that engage students in a whole new way,” said Katie Barr, the principal of Maria Carillo High School, a comprehensive 2,000-student high school in Santa Rosa. Barr, for one, is giving her teachers freer rein during this time.

Barr has long been an advocate for making our high schools more innovative, but it can often be challenging to make change amid normal political circumstances. Another high school principal I know says running a high school is like captaining an aircraft carrier: slow without a lot of agility.

But COVID is a chance for us to fundamentally rethink our system. Barr said it well: “COVID is presenting a unique opportunity in education. For the first time in 150 years, we get to blow up the industrial model of education. We are given the gift of learning because we want to learn—not because we have to learn.”

Once stay-at-home orders are lifted, students at more traditional schools might chafe at coming back to the less autonomous model of schools and fight for more academic freedom. In addition, teachers may not want to go back to the set curricula they had to follow before. Crisis breeds disruption and innovation—and often creates a future that was possible before but impractical pre-crisis. In other words, once people experience something different, it can often be hard to put the genie back in the bottle. 

Because American school policy is so decentralized, there’s a high likelihood the response and possible transformations will vary widely. We’ll see different approaches state by state, district by district, school by school, and even principal to principal. Unfortunately, many schools—perhaps most—will more or less return to the old ways. At others, perhaps, we’ll see fundamental and far-sighted change, planting seeds that will take decades to grow.

My sincere hope is that looking back in twenty years, we can laugh with our kids and say “Yes, we did do that in school before… I know it did not make any sense, but it took COVID to help us make that change.” Maybe we will start designing school and learning experiences to set our students up for the future instead of holding them back to the past. If there was ever a catalyst to jumpstart change we are living in it right now.

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